There aren’t many homes in Aotearoa where the owners might need to put chains on their car tyres to navigate the driveway after snowfall; or homes that sit above the 400m altitude threshold and require extra strengthening to cope with the more extreme weather conditions; or homes that have a purpose-built bunker you can retreat to in the event of a wildfire.
But when you look out at the expansive views on offer from this home on the slopes of Little Mount Iron, a few kilometres from central Wānaka, you can see why Helen and Ian Clarke decided to build here. “We love looking out across there and seeing places where you can walk or ski,” says Helen. “Watching the weather around Hāwea and the inversion layer and how that moves around. Often in winter you get the fog marching up the Clutha River.”
The Clarkes lived in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington for 25 years and Wānaka had historically been a place of leisure for them. Ian, who grew up on a farm in South Otago, spent his summer and winter holidays in the area and he and Helen visited on regular ski trips with their two sons. The pair had always wanted to spend more time in the mountains as they neared retirement age – and building a house on one is a good way to guarantee that.
When they were looking at the two-hectare section, they quickly deduced many potential buyers would have been put off by the rocks, wilding pines and kānuka. “You had to see the vision of what could occur here,” says Helen, “and Ian being a farmer, he could see the potential.”
They bought the land about seven years ago and set about upgrading the road, which was a major engineering task in itself. Services were also a challenge. A pump was required to get the council water supply up the hill, they needed to install their own septic tank, and stormwater was also problematic. “Nothing about it was straightforward,” Ian says. “But we weren’t daunted by any of the challenges – we just knew it would take longer.”
One day they drove past a house in Wānaka’s Peninsula Bay designed by architects Tim Lovell and Ana O’Connell, of Lovell & O’Connell Architects (LO’CA), for Tim’s parents. “We had an Ernst Plischke renovated house in Wellington, so we liked that slightly modernist look,” says Helen. They also liked all the built-in features, the bunkrooms, the stage for the grandkids to perform on, the liberal use of timber, and the dramatic roofline that draped itself over the building and provided shelter from the wind and sun. Helen and Ian also had a high level of trust in them and were open to pretty much all of their suggestions. As O’Connell says, “The question is not ‘What do you want the house to look like?’ It’s ‘How do you want to live?’ Then we can create the space to enable that.”
With a site like this, Lovell says the temptation is to go, “There it is, the view is all there.” That tends to lead to walls of glass, which is quite common in Wānaka. “But we were trying to pick specific views for each section of the house,” he says – and also make sure the owners didn’t overheat on a summer afternoon. The sloping roof form is a big part of that, says O’Connell, and having the house on one level meant it was hunkered down into the section. “The big eaves are pragmatic and offer shade, but it also means the roof becomes quite a separate element, a draped form, extending out.”
In the main entranceway hangs a Ben Timmins painting of a karearea that the Clarkes bought many years ago. Replicating New Zealand’s native falcon in building form wasn’t a factor in the design, Lovell says, but the shape of the roofline from certain points on the section reminded Ian and Helen of the bird’s wings, so they named the house Karaerea. (Fittingly, when they’ve been out in the garden, they have actually seen karearea flying past at eye level, presumably checking out their competition).
The oak ply ceiling continues seamlessly from outside in (this required a lot of skill from the young builder, James Tait). It flows all the way across the two distinct areas of the main house – the more constrained bedroom, bathroom, office and hallway area, and the more expansive kitchen, living and dining area. A gloss on the dark-stained ceiling helps to bounce light around the interior.
The rather fit and adventurous couple made a pact to keep biking up the 350-metre driveway and they’re still abiding by that, but, they say, “We’re not getting any younger,” so one of their main requirements was to future-proof the house. That means everything is flat, the bathroom and separate toilet are wheelchair accessible and there’s a bench in the hallway where they can put on their shoes.
Lovell was impressed with their willingness to reduce the size of the house (it’s 137 square metres, excluding the garage and sleepout) and invest in quality over quantity. There’s just one bathroom (the green tiles give it a “West Coasty, cool kind of feel”, says Helen), one small bedroom with a separate wardrobe, a built-in laundry, and a drying room used for ski gear in winter and mountain biking and hiking gear in summer. “We ummed and ahhed if we’d made [the bedroom] too small, but I don’t think we have,” says Helen. “And we didn’t think there was a need for a guest bathroom, so it’s quite compact.” As the pair still work – Ian as a consultant and in governance roles, Helen as a mediator – they spent quite a lot of time discussing a dedicated spot for their shared office. “It’s a multi-use space, so the desk is able to be dropped down to turn it into a bedroom if we’ve got a young guest staying,” says Helen.
Outside, nestled into the section and located under the angled roof, a courtyard offers shelter and louvres provide options. Beside it, a bunker with a fire-rated door offers peace of mind in this high-fire-risk zone (and doubles as a place to hang deer, dry garlic and store wine). If there is a fire, there are towels to block up the ventilation shafts and a dive tank so they can release some air if they end up in there for a while.
While the kānuka is protected, some trees were able to be cleared to create the recommended 10-metre gap between the house and the potential fuel. Morrie the robo-mower keeps the lawns down and, if the worst happens, an internal-external sprinkler system uses water from the pool to protect the home. (While they initially questioned this level of protection, the need was proved when 48 Lake Ōhau homes and buildings burned to the ground in 2020 in one of the country’s biggest wildfires.)
While the main house is designed to fit their Wānaka life – and future – one of the benefits of living in a resort town is that you’re never short of visitors. The pair wanted friends and family to be able to stay with them, but didn’t want to be on deck all the time. The solution is what the family calls The DOC Hut, a more basic 85-square-metre building separate from the main house that has a small kitchen and can sleep up to 12 people in triple-stacker bunks and fold-out beds. “I’m one of nine and Ian is one of seven,” says Helen. “It means family can come and stay, get up early, make their toast and go skiing if we have to work that day.” It’s safe to assume that the Clarkes will be doing something similar in their everyday lives, exploring the region, embracing the natural wonders – returning to the safety, comfort and beauty of their house on the hill.
8. Sheltered Terrace
9. Cellar / Bunker
11. Main Bedroom
15. Drying Room